The Saudi English-language daily newspaper Arab News reminded us in a recent article that “The evil eye [is still] an obsession for most Middle Eastern families”.
What is the “evil eye” (for anyone to whom this might be a totally alien and unheard-of concept)? It is the belief that someone may hurt a person or an object simply by looking at it with (conscious or unconscious) ill thoughts or feelings, such as envy or dislike. Needless to say, science rules out any such phenomenon, and one can easily point out various checks (simple test-situations) that will show this to be one of those cases of selective memory (one remembers only the results that “confirm” one’s prior belief, whereas all the results, “positive” and “negative”, would should the effect to be purely random).
One should immediately emphasize the fact that the “evil eye” concept exists well beyond the Arab-Muslim culture, and indeed it predates Islam by centuries, if not millennia. This is not to excuse any such superstition, but just to be fair and objective, as well as sociologically accurate and relevant in the hopeful search for a remedy to this problem (to the concept, that is, not to the “evil eye” itself).
So the Arab News article relates to us stories about present practices by people who take full account of the “evil eye” in their lives. We are told that it can “affect children, adults, livestock, and people’s possessions” and that “[p]eople who are young, wealthy and particularly handsome are considered more at risk.” So what do people do to protect themselves? In more orthodox environments, such as Saudi Arabia, they would insist with anyone expressing admiration about any of their belongings to immediately add “Ma Sha’ Allah” (“What Allah willed!”), or they (secretly) recite some Qur’anic verses right after an admiring statement is made. Quite often, people will adorn room walls with special verses, and sometimes Imams or Ulamas are asked to come and exorcise a house from an evil eye spell.
More superstitious people will resort to various practices, ranging from keeping everything secret to sprinkling water at places where envious people have sat (in one’s home), to putting a knife under a newborn’s pillow. In other cultures (e.g. Turkey or North Africa), people often resort to talismans, such as the famous “nazar” (“nazar boncugu” or “nazalik”) in Turkey, or the “khamsa” hand (a.k.a. “hamsa”) in North Africa and elsewhere (see images below). The “khamsa” is often given an Islamic connotation by relating the five fingers to the five important members of the Prophet’s house (with Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Hussain).
Wikipedia and its sources tell us that the concept can be found in ancient cultures and religions, including those of Egypt, where it may have originated, and those of Greece and Rome, as well as in the Old Testament.
In the Islamic culture, things are a bit more interesting. To my knowledge, the only Qur’anic verse that people often take to refer to the evil eye is “[Say I seek protection by Allah…] from the evil of the envious when he envies” (113:5). It does not appear that the verse is necessarily referring to the evil eye; the “evil of the envious when he envies” could be achieved by more “normal” ways. One should note, however, that the previous verse in this (short) chapter (sura) mentions some ancient witchcraft practice, i.e. the “blowing on knots”.
The hadiths, however, do contain a number of explicit references to the evil eye. Not only is the Prophet said to have confirmed the existence of the evil eye (“The influence of an evil eye is a fact…” Sahih Muslim – Book 026, Number 5427), we find statements explaining how to cure from its effects (washing/performing ablutions and reciting certain prayers). The Islamic literature is also replete with stories of famous Muslims (Imams and scholars) who witnessed and/or discussed cases of evil eye, which can go to the extreme of someone killing a camel by looking at it with deliberate ill intent.
How does one rationally deal with such beliefs and practices in one’s society and culture? It should be clear that dismissing the phenomenon as scientifically bogus is not enough, for the traditionalists’ argument is first and foremost religious: “if the Prophet said it, and he was receiving revelation from on high, then it must be true, no matter what your science says”; besides, people will add, “your science doesn’t know everything, especially on human nature, does it?” In other words, this is not just belief in the paranormal; it is religiously-backed belief in the paranormal. And that explains why many educated people around me, I would say an overwhelming majority of them, believe in the evil eye without hesitation.
Interestingly, on most such issues, including Evolution, Cosmology, and much of Science, Qur’anic verses are easy to deal with, for two reasons: a) they rarely contain statements that clearly make a scientifically erroneous claim; b) they are often expressed in such a style as to allow one to interpret them metaphorically. Indeed, as we saw above, the verse on the “envious” is not too difficult to deal with. The problem is much more acute with the hadiths, and this is also the case with the topics of Evolution, Cosmology, etc.
I look forward to various views and contributions.